Small town NASA church member take teens to robotics state championship
By Lindsay Peyton
The first time, Martin’s Mill’s high school team headed to Dallas to compete at the BEST of Texas Robotics Championship, the teens were nervous. One of their mentors Marvin Shaw, a volunteer from Holly Springs UMC in Canton, drove the team – and at the time, they all fit in a Chevy Suburban. “They were extremely intimidated,” he recalled. “But they went from feeling intimidated to sticking out their chests and saying, ‘We’ve got this.’”
No one asks where Martin’s Mill, Texas is anymore at the competition, Shaw explained. Their team put the school on the map. And mentors from Holly Springs UMC were behind the scenes, providing the support to help make it all possible.
The BEST (Boosting Engineering, Science, and Technology) competition started in 1993, when two Texas Instruments (TI) engineers, Ted Mahler and Steve Marum, joined a group of high school students, watching a video of freshmen at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) building a robot. The teens wanted to try their hands at the feat and the engineers wondered, “Why don’t we do this?”
The Martin’s Mill High School began in a similar way – with a group of teens ready to try robotics. The small school, however, needed help to pave the way.
In 2012, the younger students in the school district were enrolled in a Lego Robotics program. “They wanted the high schoolers here to have something to do,” Shaw recalled. “One of the teachers called me and said, ‘Help!’”
Shaw describes himself as a “retired computer guy” with a metal shop at his home. In fact, he has a fascinating career, starting at NASA after college and moving into automated pipelines. He started his own company in the industry in 1974 and 10 years later, was able to sell the business and retire at only 39-years old.
Shaw was up to the challenge of mentoring students in robotics. He also called Gene Keith, another church member who also works with metal and wood to help students get started.
The two became the leaders of the team. “When we started, our shop consisted of a hammer and a handsaw,” Shaw said. “The kids had to come to my house or his house and build. Now the community and the school have gotten behind this.”
Students currently meet at the school’s science lab to build their robots. Their teachers Freida Alsobrook and Windfield Munns have also been essential, offering the support needed for the crew.
Each year, the teens are presented a unique problem to solve for the competition. “You have six weeks to complete that job,” Shaw said.
The team is provided with a box of materials to use, including plastic, plywood, screws and electric motors. “You have to build a robot from scratch,” Shaw said. “And it has to be using the materials they have given you.”
Making robots to climb a 10-foot pole
The creation has to fit into a 2-foot-cube – but then can expand, like a transformer, to complete the task. The first year, Shaw said, students were challenged to make a robot that could climb a 10-foot pole. The team has created robots that mine, farm, fight fires and clean up plastic from the ocean. Each year, a real-world problem is the root for the challenge. This year, the coronavirus took centerstage.
The robot has to cross a checkboard, with magnets on certain blocks that symbolize COVID-19 carriers. “The robot has to gather up 21 blocks and figure out which ones are infected and which ones to quarantine,” Shaw said.
Because of COVID-19, however, the competition itself has changed. Some of the presentations moved to Zoom, and a representative from the championships will come to the school to judge the robot.
Shaw and Keith are not able to go to the school this year to help the students – so instead they are mentoring remotely. Luckily Shaw said with a few years under their belt, the robotics team runs like a machine. “We’re sort of on autopilot now,” he said. “We’ve got a good database on how to do things.”
The event will be held mid- November. If students do well, they will advance to the state level.
“We won the last five consecutive years,” Shaw said. “The first year, we won best rookie. The second year, we were in second place, and again in second the third year. Then it was just, first, first, first.”
Shaw and Keith build playing fields so the students can try out their robots each year. Shaw said he can relate to the students, having attended nearby Canton High School and graduating in a small class, with 62 students. He tells students, “You can either win or learn. ‘Can’t’ really means ‘I don’t want to.’ That’s not where we need to be. If you don’t give up, you can jump some pretty big hurdles.”
Helping the teens acquire STEM skills and win the championships has been more rewarding than Shaw ever imagined. “I would have been a schoolteacher, if I had known,” he said. “I didn’t realize how much satisfaction you get watching these little flowers bloom.”
Church provides STEM scholarships
He added that the church is small, with maybe 30 to 45 worshipping on Sundays. Sometimes, teens from the church are part of the team. This year, however, the young members are not old enough.
Still, the congregation still provides a scholarship each year for the robotics team – as well as another award for students who need assistance at the school. Teachers select the students to receive the honor, Shaw said.
He added that both the Holly Springs UMC Martins Mill ISD Robotics Scholarship and
Holly Springs UMC Martins Mill ISD UIL Scholarship, depending on church donations, can total about $1,000 for the recipient.
Volunteers help pastor with technology
Pastor Erin Muckleroy at Holly Springs UMC said that Shaw and Keith see no difference between helping the church and the community. “This is what a pastor dreams of, people who want to faithfully and humbly serve the community in selfless ways,” she said. “It’s amazing and inspiring.”
The two men have also helped her install a radio transmitter, allowing church members who are at-risk of COVID-19 to hear her sermons in the parking lot on Sunday. “They are both so kind and willing to share love,” Muckleroy said. “That’s a way that demonstrates their love for their neighbors. They’ve created a way for people to still come and worship.”
When the Martin’s Mill robotics team heads to Dallas each year for the competition, the school allows students of all ages to stand out in the hall to see them off. “The teens get to run through, and it turns into a hero deal,” Shaw said. “Basketball is usually the king at our little school, but we’re giving the kids who aren’t necessarily athletic, a way to play. They get to high-five the kindergartners.”
And then those kindergarteners might grow up to join the robotics team one day.
At the competition, the teens dress up and explain their robots like professionals, Shaw said. They are judged on documenting their process in an engineering notebook, marketing their robots and of course, their grasp on science and engineering to build their creations and solve the challenges.
“It’s hard to keep your mouth from dropping,” Shaw said. “I’m pretty proud.”
They work late and are dedicated to learning. “In a normal year, you have to run them off from school,” Shaw said. “They want to win. I could have never imagined this success they’ve achieved so quickly. It’s basically a fairytale. It’s heartwarming.”